The question I am trying to answer is this: If faith is the sine qua non of being saved (Ephesians 2:8; Acts 16:31; Romans 5:1), then is it proper to speak of faith as meriting salvation? Does one earn salvation by believing in Jesus?
First, note that this is not a serious question for the universalist. For him, the call to faith is the call to all people to recognize that they have already been justified and are being and will be saved. Nothing crucial hangs on the act of faith. But I am not working with the universalist assumption, but rather with the assumption that “we are justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) and without faith we are not saved and not justified.
In other words, I am assuming that the attitude of the heart and mind which we call faith is just as necessary to the salvation of the individual as the death and resurrection of Christ are, because it is that without which we will not be saved. Does this insistence that our faith is as necessary as Christ’s death for our salvation mean that our faith merits salvation?
How we answer this question depends on our use of the terms involved. The key terms are “merit” and “faith.” As the term is normally used, “to merit” (or “to deserve”) something good from somebody means to perform some act or manifest some quality which has enough value to another person that it morally obligates him to reward it.
Illustration 1 – The Guilty Convict
What faith involves and whether it “merits” salvation may be shown by two illustrations. First, picture yourself as a murderer condemned to death and awaiting execution. You are guilty and everyone knows it. You deserve to die. Then you get a letter from the President of the United States which says that he has, by his sovereign power, decided to remit your sentence and let you go free.
The reason he gives for this decision is not that any new evidence has turned up, but rather he simply wants to demonstrate to everyone his power in this declaration of mercy and to transform your disregard for his laws into humble adoration of his merciful sovereignty. He calls your attention to his seal on the letter and instructs you to simply show it to the warden, who will then let you go free—no questions asked.
So you call the guard, show him the letter and get a hearing with the warden. As you enter the warden’s office, you smell the fresh air of life and liberty blowing in his window and you see the tops of trees and a kite flying beyond the wall. You hand him the letter and he reads it. Without a query he orders the guard to get your things. As you leave the gates you turn to look at the massive prison and the row of windows where you had been an hour before. Then you start running and jumping and shouting and laughing and telling everyone, “The President let me out! The President let me out!”
Illustration 2 – The Poor Laborer
In the second illustration, picture yourself as a poor unskilled laborer who barely can scrape enough together to feed your wife and three children. One day you get in the mail a letter from a famous wealthy philanthropist. The letter says that if you will bring it to his lawyer, the lawyer will pay you a hundred thousand dollars—no strings attached. The reason he gives is simply that he enjoys giving to the poor.
There is no indication why he sent the letter to you and not to another. You need only go pick up the money with the letter. So you follow his instructions and go. Entering the lawyer’s office, you hand him the letter. He says he has been expecting you, writes the check and bids you farewell.
The question that these two stories raise is whether you, in either situation, could properly speak of “meriting” freedom or wealth? You did have to meet a condition: The sine qua non of freedom and wealth was to present the letters from the President and the philanthropist. But to use our definition of merit, was your presenting of the letters an act so valuable to the President or to the philanthropist that they were thus obligated to reward you?
Why Faith is not Meritorious
I think the answer is clearly no. Only one thing obligated the President and the philanthropist—their own honor. Insofar as they were committed to maintaining their own honor, it was morally impossible for them to refuse the favor they had promised. In other words, there was something so valuable to them that they were obligated to “reward” it, namely, their own good name.
Faith is symbolized by the response of the prisoner and the poor man. On what basis could they with any assurance lay claim to the promise of freedom and wealth? No use of the terms “merit” or “deserve” in our ordinary experience would justify the prisoner’s saying to the warden, “I deserve (or merit) freedom because I brought you this letter.” Nor could he properly say, “My act of bringing you this letter is an act so valuable to the President that he is therefore obligated to free me.” That statement completely contradicts the dynamics of this situation.
The prisoner may say one thing: “Our merciful President has sent me a letter of remittance and I believe that his faithfulness to his word and his commitment to his own honor is so great that in spite of my guilt he will certainly do what he has said.”
Faith is the one human act which morally obligates another person without calling attention to the other person’s honor. Faith in God’s promise obligates him to save the believer not because the quality of faith is meritorious, but because faith is the one human act which calls attention alone to God’s merit, honor and glory and his unswerving commitment to maintain that glory.
The Biblical Purpose of Faith
The cry of faith is found throughout the Psalms:
- “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; and deliver us and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 79:9).
- “For the sake of thy name, O Lord, revive me” (Psalm 143:11).
- “For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11).
- “But thou, O Lord, deal kindly with me for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 109:21).
Paul spells out the essence of faith as the antithesis to merit when he says in Romans 4:4-5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
And then Paul gives Abraham’s experience as the great pattern for all faith when he says, “With respect to the promise of God (the letters of the President and the philanthropist) Abraham did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Romans 4:20).